Posted tagged ‘ignorance and resignation’

Burning

September 15, 2010

Most things we do have some unintended consequences, but some people are more circumspect than others, and some people are fruitcakes.

The bloke from Florida who wanted to burn the Koran has already had far too much attention than was warranted, but a piece by my friend Phil in Afghanistan brings a solemn dose of reality to our thinking, and is a timely reminder that in our interdependent world, the actions we all take can cause ripples not only in our own pond, but in places and ways that we might never imagine.

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Good intentions

September 8, 2010

“Couldn’t we get involved with those people you visit in the compound on the edge of town – the people with HIV?”

That was my question to Paul, the Zambian man we stayed with for four months. After all, we had come as volunteers to help and to experience. Wouldn’t that be a good use of time, an experience more ‘on the edge’? Among the many tasks Paul did, he visited and organised practical help for some of the many folks living with and dying of AIDS in the compounds, the very poorest communities on the fringes of Kitwe, the northern Zambian city he lived in. No, we were to teach some English in the local school and maybe help with some first-aid. And we were take our time and listen, and see where we might fit in. Sometimes we were good at that, sometimes we weren’t.

There are many notions tangled up in my question, few of which I could recognise myself at the time. What were my thoughts about other people’s poverty, and maybe about my own? Did I think I could do better, or just as well at least, as a local person? What role does international volunteering have in addressing complex issues? Who really benefits in the end?

It was 12 years ago and half a world away, our time as volunteers in Zambia, but some reading I did the other night reminded me of my conversations with Paul. I got stuck into reading a number of blogs about international aid and development – a couple of them I regularly read, but as happens with online  reading, a link to a link to a link takes me all sorts of places I never expected. Very often it’s worth it though. It’s worth examining why orphanages are a bad idea most of the time, or the way grinding poverty gets mistaken for authenticity. It’s worth asking questions about well-intended schemes to free people from human slavery or send a million shirts to ‘Africa’, or even about the way we characterise communities that are only ever seen as poor, and never anything else. All these bear further thinking about – so often good intentions are gravely misguided, and the errors gets hidden away beneath the goodwill, seldom exposed for their ignorance.

None of this is new – debate about the best ways to address pressing issues is ongoing. There is a natural counterpoint to this too. We could get paralysed with fear that we might do something wrong. Surely good intentions should be applauded? Surely passion for alleviating poverty and harnessing the vast resources of those who have them is a key part of working for justice and compassion. With too much complexity and too much criticism, won’t we kill the passion and creativity? Creativity and passion are powerful forces – for good and evil, but they are never enough.

In this vein, the importance of self-examination and critical thinking cannot be under-estimated, especially on actions that affect others so much. As one writer argued, we don’t let anyone do brain surgery on our relatives just because they’re keen and they have a creative idea. In our thinking about contributing to overseas aid and development, often we are not as thorough. The feel-good factor of offering help in times of need can often cancel out the important task of thinking about further ramifications of our actions.

There are so many others can write with clarity about these matters with much more maturity and expertise than me, but in a sense it helps me crystalise my own thoughts, and to encourage others to go on a similar journey. I would recommend a read of some of the material on Blood and Milk, Good intentions are not enough, Aid watchers and many of the writers they link to. And I think  Staying for tea writes a beaut post about competence and passion and humility, that makes good sense of some of the competing ideas. It’s a bit like a chain that never ends.

And I make these comments here with trepidation, because who am I, having rarely travelled beyond my own comfort zone compared to so many others? However, in a world that always seems to be in strife, where a million causes and ideas to face them stare out at us, our own seeming good intentions and the intentions of others need serious consideration. Ignorance can so often be laziness.

The road to hell is paved.

Everything has a biography

May 10, 2010

All commodities have a biography – the coffee and tea we drink, the fuel for our car, the clothes we wear, the toys that children play with, the packaging that is discarded.

The biography of all those things includes what they are made from, how they made and under what conditions, and how they are traded and marketed. What happened to the earth and the sea where the raw materials came from? Who made the things I bought and what is their life like? The end of life for all those commodities is a part of that biographical journey – will they be recycled, added to landfill, or discarded on the side of the road or in the bush.

We could be tempted to see our food and our clothes and the energy we use, as only existing where they are with us, but they have histories and futures and to deny those would be a lie. Environmental degradation, sweat-shop labour, and manipulative marketing are all part of the life story of a great deal of what gets bought and sold.

A news story I was reading yesterday reported on the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where still 800,000 litres of oil a day leaks into the ocean from an exploded rig. The report reflected upon the ongoing ramifications of another famous oil spill over 20 years ago. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker leaked over 50 million litres of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. Twenty years on, the ongoing costs are enormous – tons of oil still under the ocean bed, herring and fish stocks that never recovered, local fishing villages gripped by alcoholism and domestic violence that rose along with the unemployment rate as the local fishing industry perished along with the sea birds.

The sins of heavy industry are not the only ones – there are lesser known, ongoing stories, in which we play a part too.

In Cote de I’voire, where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, poverty is endemic, with children, many of them from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, held in forced labour in places where there are no clinics, no schools and no electricity. They know little of the future of the cocoa beans they work long days to harvest. The issue of child trafficking and cocoa is complicated – ingrained poverty, cocoa trading by large transnational corporations, the varying advocacy efforts of fair-trading co-operatives. It is a complicated web of contingencies, often with no clear flows of cause and effect, but laced with plenty of injustice and misery. The chocolate we consume joyfully and readily has a biography too, and it is a shady one.

But must I spend my days wracked by guilt? After all, to function socially where I live, and to earn a living and contribute to society, I need some things – clothes, tools, books, transport. And I need to eat. Constantly researching and worrying about the origin of the things I buy is wearying, and seems almost pointless – a lonely drop in a large ocean. There are other drops but they are never enough to change the tide. Ignorance is easier.

Resignation is an option too. Human history, amongst other characteristics, is one of harshness and exploitation, of one group’s power over another, of earth and sea constantly changed. Perhaps this is life on our lonely planet.

This seems inadequate though. Dissatisfying, lazy, weak even. What if we just resigned ourselves to the fact that if a child gets sick, they might die. What if the East Timorese had resigned themselves to never being free. What if a girlfriend beaten up resigned herself to the fact that it will just keep happening. Resignation is what people do when they’re leaving somewhere, and even though we will all die at sometime, most of us are staying for the moment. If we never sought change, our humanity would be diminished.

I can’t change, know or understand everything. But ignorance and resignation would be too lazy a response.

* I first read about this concept of biographies in a 2005 Arena Magazine article called “After Affluence”, written by Kim Humphrey

Headlines

April 9, 2010

Villagers massacred by Ugandan rebels … Chinese waste problem growing as fast as economy … suicide attackers strike peak hour metro …

As usual, I am struck by the tragedy of the headlines. Not just that they are very much full of strife, but the scale, the depth, and the variety of tragedy can be mind-boggling if I let in sink in. I am in no way the first to feel this, to feel the hollow resignation that comes with powerlessness. What can I do? Well … nothing.

I am not a resistance leader, aid worker or politician. Anyway, I suspect they too are wracked by many of the same feelings. Even so, my mind searches for what could be done – send money, political action, hope and pray, support the work of others, keep telling the stories, give up …

Actions and intention either never seem enough or they are some how out of reach. Still, feeling powerless is no excuse for ignorance – that would be giving up completely